Knowing stuff? No, thanks. That’s so last century…

20th November 2015 at 00:00
In the age of the internet – where we find things out when we need them, not if we need them – traditional processes of education are outdated and must change

Knowing is an obsolete idea from a time when it was not possible to access or acquire knowledge at a moment of need. The idea of knowing assumes that the brain must be “primed” in advance for circumstances that may require knowledge. Just in case.

We assess learners to find out if they have learned what was taught. In almost all educational systems around the world, someone decides what a learner should be taught, someone (else) teaches this to him and then someone (yet else) examines him to find out if he has learned. This process usually applies to people between the ages of 6 and about 24. The process is old, outdated and needs change.

What children should be taught is usually embodied in a curriculum of some kind. A curriculum is a collection of things that we (humankind) know and consider valuable. They are considered valuable because they are useful skills for life, they enable us to do clever things, or they are simply nice to know or think about. The learner is not usually consulted during the construction of a curriculum. This curriculum is then taught to her in her first 18 years, just in case she needs to use some of it as she goes about living the rest of her life.

At this point, she is considered educated. I have not been able to find an estimate of how much of this “just in case” education she actually uses in her lifetime.

Knowledge we won’t use

For example, the learner may know how to multiply a three-digit number by a two-digit number using paper and pencil, but she is unlikely to ever do so. Or she may know that dolichos lablab is the real name for legumes that are made into dhal and are eaten with rice or bread by a billion people. This knowledge may enrich her life in some mysterious way.

So, we can safely deduce that if x per cent of what is taught (just in case it is useful or beautiful) is actually used by a learner, then 100 times x per cent is either left unused in the learner’s brain or is mercifully forgotten.

It is assumed that, in order to learn something, a learner needs to be taught. The usual sequence is: you are taught, then you learn, and when you have learned, you know. A teacher is a person who knows what has to be taught and can transfer this knowledge to the learner by telling him or her about it. The learner then listens, sometimes takes notes, mulls over what he has heard or noted and acquires the teacher’s knowledge. Now they both know – just in case they ever need to.

How do we know if the learner really knows? We can examine her. An exam is where a learner is presented with a make-believe “just in case” situation she has been prepared for. For example, if three men can dig a ditch in five days, in how many days can five men dig the same ditch? The learner is allowed some time, a sheet of paper and a pen and proceeds to use her stored knowledge to work out the answer.

Exams, in the old system, need to have questions to which there are clear, single answers. This is because if millions of learners are being examined, we need thousands of examiners. These examiners need to evaluate each answer in exactly the same way. A question that has many answers or requires an informed opinion as its answer cannot be asked in an exam. The need for standardisation dumbs the whole system down. The internet, however, changes the role and meaning of knowing. It is the collective knowledge of all humanity, in all its good and evil forms, connected and related – available instantly to anyone.

It is exobiological, in a sense, and does not need to reside in brains. The internet is a brain – a very big one. A traditional exam cannot measure its knowledge, so we cannot allow a learner to access it during an exam.

In my work, I have found that when people, particularly children, mingle with the internet, knowing becomes increasingly unnecessary. “Just in case” changes to “just in time”. Groups of children can learn almost anything by themselves, in the presence of the internet. But why should they?

Give pupils the Big Questions

There can be a new system of learning where learners have a reason to learn. It will need to be built using the questions to which no one has an answer: the big unknowns of our time.

I find that children love and will engage with such Big Questions. Why do we have five fingers and toes on each limb? Why not any other number? (This will take them all over “curricular” biology, evolution and sometimes geometry.)

The internet, obviously, cannot answer the questions to which no one knows the answer. But it can provide the clues to what the answer might be. In that quest for the unknown, learners will encounter all that is known that may help to find the answer. This time they will have a reason to learn and know.

If we make the curriculum not of things we know but of things we don’t know, there will be little to teach and much to learn. We call this a self-organised learning environment (Sole). In a Sole, groups of learners engage with each other and the internet in search of answers to what is, as yet, unknown. A teacher in a Sole is just a friend, a moral support, fumbling in the dark with their cohort.

In a Sole, assessment, pedagogy and curriculum merge into a single learning experience. We don’t ask “What is the answer?” but “How will we find out?”

Thousands of teachers around the world are working with Soles to find out how they might integrate with or replace existing educational systems. The Sole is still a fledgling concept and there are many questions about how it can be used or what for. We do know, however, that the education system cannot continue to pretend that the internet does not exist.

We don’t need to know, until we need to know…

Sugata Mitra is a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University. He is speaking at the Bett ed-tech show in London on 20 January 2016

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